Let’s begin with this: The Pittsburgh Penguins are going to make the playoffs.
Do not let the three-game losing streak, made even more frustrating in the manner in which the past two games were lost, send you into a panic about their spot in the postseason. They are going to be there. If they only win three of their remaining eight games, which would be an absolutely brutal finish, Montreal, who currently sits in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, would still have to go 6-2-1 in its remaining 9 games to finish ahead of them and knock them out of the postseason. Columbus would have to go 5-3-1 to tie them and finish ahead with a tiebreaker. Again, that is if the Penguins were to only win three more games from today. You should expect them to be able to do at least that. They should be able to do at least that. You should also expect more than that.
This is also a team that has has gone 8-3-4 over the past month, collecting 20 out of a possible 30 points during that stretch. That record would put them on a 109-point pace over an 82-game schedule. You would absolutely sign up for that sort of record at the start of the season.
None of that means you should not still be frustrated with the past month because there is every reason to believe the record should have been better given some of the points they have left on the table.
Four points to be exact.
- On February 23 in the Stadium Series game at Philadelphia the Penguins had a 3-1 lead with less than four minutes to play in regulation, and still held a one-goal lead with less than 20 seconds to play in regulation. They ended up going to overtime where they lost. One point left left on the table.
- On March 1, just one week later, the Penguins held a 4-3 lead with less than two-and-a-half minutes to play against an absolutely dreadful Buffalo Sabres team that has been one of the worst in the league over the past three months. They gave up the tying goal with 2:20 to play in regulation then lost in overtime. Two points left on the table.
- On Sunday, March 17, the Penguins held another one-goal lead over the Philadelphia Flyers with 20 seconds to play and got caught with three forwards outside of the defensive zone as the Flyers played with an extra attacker, gave up the tying goal, and then left in overtime when they were three seconds away from a shootout. Three points left on the table.
- Then on Tuesday, March 19, they had a one-goal lead with less than two minutes to play, in a game where a regulation win would have been massive, and let it slip away, losing in a shootout. Four points left on the table.
Lose one of those games? Hey, it happens. Not really a big deal. But do it four times in less than a month? That is a problem, especially when it comes to the standings. Had they simply held to those four games where they were less than two-and-a-half minutes away from winning in regulation (and in two cases, less than 20 seconds away) they would currently be tied for first place in the Metropolitan Division with 42 regulation/overtime wins and owning the tiebreaker over both the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders.
Even if they just win the two Philadelphia games — games they were less than 20 seconds away from winning in regulation — they are only two points back of the Capitals for first place, and currently sitting in second place in the home-ice advantage spot in round one.
Now, after having lost all four of those games, they sit in third place, with Carolina now just two points back with still two games in hand, and run the risk of having to face either Washington or Tampa Bay in the first-round and not having those first two games of the series at home, something that has served the Penguins very well in recent postseasons.
That is frustrating.
What is so frustrating about it is how those games have followed such a similar storyline, where they scratch and claw to take the lead and (in three of those games — the Buffalo game was not an empty-net situation) watch it disappear as they are unable to secure the win.
Justin Williams’ game-tying goal on Tuesday night was the seventh goal the Penguins have allowed in a 6-on-5 situation this season, tied for the second most in the league. Now, that number without any context is a little misleading because that takes into account ALL 6-on-5 situations, including delayed penalties. It is not just end-of-game situations.
After playing around with the Hockey-Reference goal finder you can find that the Penguins have given up the game-tying goal in the final two minutes of regulation three different times this season, and all coming within the past month (Philadelphia twice, Carolina once). They are one of only nine teams in the league that can make that claim.
Only four of those teams, including the Penguins (New York Islanders, Winnipeg Jets, Washington Capitals are the others), are playoff teams.
Keep something else in mind: Between 2015-16 and 2017-18 the Penguins only allowed three game-tying goals in the final two minutes of regulation ... total. Over three seasons.
They have allowed three such goals in the past month, and that still does not include the game in Buffalo, where the game-tying goal happened with just around two-and-a-half minutes to play.
Maybe this is just a run of bad luck, a fluky anomaly that that does not require a deeper explanation than, “Hey, shit happens sometimes. Hockey is unpredictably dumb. Move on.”
Had a Twitter follower suggest to me on Tuesday night that maybe this is an example of a situation where the Penguins really miss Carl Hagelin and ... you know what ... I do not hate that theory at all. Hagelin was your best defensive forward, your most reliable forward away from the puck, a shut down type of player that you always trusted in those situations. Now you do not really have such a player. It may not be fair to put all of it on one player being there or not being there, but ... that is the exact situation Hagelin used to be deployed in and while he was there the team was very good at not allowing these type of goals. No, correlation does not equal causation, but it is still something worth analyzing.
Whatever the reason the games happened, the goals were allowed, the points were left sitting there. Now it has the Penguins going from a situation where they could have potentially won their division and had home-ice in the first-two rounds, to potentially having to start those first two rounds on the road or perhaps even being stuck in the second Wild Card spot where you would have to run the gauntlet that would Tampa Bay in round one, and if by some chance you get through that, having to play Boston or Toronto in the second round.
Winning the Stanley Cup is not just about being the best team (that helps!). It is about being the best team, being healthy, getting some luck, and having getting some of the right matchups along the way.
By leaving these points on the table, the Penguins have run the risk of really making things more difficult for themselves with the matchups.